During the first week of January 2019, as I was just leaving Auntie’s apartment at All Hallows, I thought she called me. It was a faint ‘Jo” that it had me going back to see if she needed me. She said she was just thinking about how the coming 2019 will be a good year for her though she blurted out my name for no reason. I gave her a peck, again, on the forehead before I left.
So now, fast forward to today, Thursday, January 2, 2020. It seems all that had happened seemed so surreal for the past 12 months. So when I was going through my appointment book, this blog, and passages, I started to feel the mixed emotions of melancholy and happiness I’ve never experienced before. It opened layer upon layer of joy, hate, empathy, and sadness in varying degrees that mere words couldn’t describe.
In January, or actually before that, I made the decision to finish my creative writing degree from SFSU. The goal was to graduate and get the diploma by June. I have two more courses, all in SFSU. I also went back to Davao in order to get the keys of my condo since it was fully paid for. This was planned ahead of time, even before I accepted the position in the Economics Department of UC Berkeley. There’s also concern about Auntie’s health, she’s been admitted into the Emergency room at least twice for the past few months. All I can do is hope and pray that everything will go well. Though her demeanor was upbeat and feisty, her breathing has been more labored than ever.
So here I am in Davao, finally taking the first steps into my little condo that I’ve been saving up for how many years. It is thirty-one square meters small and enough for one person or two. I plan to live in it and maybe sell it in a few years. I knew I was going to take a risk about this condo considering that someone warned me a while back that Davao City was formerly a delta and that it was under water before the volcano raised it up, lava flow after lava flow, from the sea. The ground is soft and considering that the Philippines is in the western edge of the Pacific ring of fire where ground shaking activity has been going on for eons, things are always going to be unstable. I hired an architect to buy the furniture and appliances, add a full length mirror and window shade, and change the color of the southern wall into light blue. All these was going to happen after I left to go back to the US. I also had to leave money to pay for my monthly dues with the broker whom I trusted to deal with Condo issues.
It was February 4th when Auntie didn’t heed her assistant’s warnings that the inclement weather isn’t good for her health but she insisted of seeing her physician at the Zuckerberg SF General. I was at work that day. Though everything went okay, I got a call from her in the afternoon. She sounded as if she’ about to cry and told me to come see and watch her overnight and that she’s not feeling good. I told her I am on my way. I called Sister Grace Grima, the director, to check up on Auntie and see if she’s okay. I was in the Bart when Sister Grace said that Auntie needs to go to the emergency room right away. I asked to go ahead and call 911. During this time, traffic was going to be a mess so it was easier for me to take public transportation rather than Uber. I got another call twenty minutes later, it was the EMT telling me that they need approval from me to take Auntie to CPMC instead of SF General because they were full. I said it was okay. So when I went to see Auntie at the Emergency room. When I glanced upon her, she had a pained look all over that I’ve never seen before. She couldn’t talk because she had a respirator. Our eyes met. I nodded and smiled to assured her that everything will be fine. She looked straight at me and slowly shook her head twice. My heart sank. I bit my tongue and turned around and walked to the waiting room. The doctor wanted to discharge her that night. I argued that she’s too frail to be left alone at home and that no one will be able to take care of her at this time though I may have had the energy to find someone last minute. We didn’t have enough funds to pay for full time nurse to tend to her 24/7. So I decided to leave her there. The physician had no other choice but to admit her. While she was the CPMC, we broached the idea of having her permanently moved to Laguna Honda. She was too weak to take care of herself and we couldn’t afford to do so. At first, she didn’t want to go, fearing her preconceived notion about LH’s history in treating its elderly patients. It took some prodding from Sister Grace that LH was good choice. Somehow Auntie listens to her more than me and my sister. In the end, she decided it was for the best to move to Laguna Honda. Now to get rid of all her stuff at All Hallows. All I could say is Auntie was a hoarder.
While at Laguna Honda, Auntie was well taken cared of. The nurses and nurse’s aides were mostly Filipino so they were able to help ease her fears by giving in to her demands; low sodium soy sauce to add into bland food (which I personally think defeats the purpose of ensuring that low salt intake means no edema in the extremities), Sinigang cooked especially for her. She asked me for money so I gave her an allowance of $30 a week. I’ve no idea what she does with the money considering everything was free. She was also starting to develop bedsore
School was starting to get busier as assignments, research, and more writing became a norm. Somehow with all the stress I am dealing with at the moment, I was truly inspired to write. It was actually therapeutic. I also learned something about the pedagogy of world music and its relation on how sounds through the usage of primitive instruments such as a gong, or a didgeridoo, or a sitar may mean a lot of things to the listener. I was also thrilled to expand on a short story about Vampires in San Francisco that I wrote at my detective fiction class. I did my research on European customs about the undead, about suspected vampires with red bricks placed on their mouths once they were unearthed, and about maps that reveal more underneath the surface.
April 9th came. I was at work preparing for our weekly seminar when the phone rang. It was Auntie’s doctor from Laguna Honda. She died around 20 minutes past 11 am. I started to hyperventilate. I tried to calm myself but I was too overwhelmed with the loss of a loved one that I finally broke down right in front of my assistant. I called my sister later and to meet me at Laguna Honda by 3 pm. I also called Duggans to pick Auntie’s body by 6 pm that day. When we got to see Auntie in her room, she looked as if she was sleeping. The color on her face was gone, no more breathing tubes and no eyeglasses. She was dressed in the off white embroidered outfit we picked out for her. We buried her in Davao on May 9th. She got her final wish of being buried next to her sister at San Pedro Memorial, close to her parents. I brought my assignments and still had to work on school stuff while trying to get Auntie buried. I’ve no more vacation or paid time off left. I also tried, in vain, to talk about my creative writing final project via video but it didn’t push through.
So my sister and I decided to take a small vacay in Boracay. Bali would’ve presented logistical issues. This was after the makeover of the place. You see, Bora was closed for six months for environmental issues. This time around,
While in Boracay, I was chatting with a friend online about my current predicament. He suggested I finish my book, be an author full time, and retire early once I turn 55 and move to the Philippines. Hmm… what a novel idea! I’ve no one to take care anymore in the Bay area since Auntie is gone except myself. My pension, should it ever come to that point, won’t be enough in San Francisco or Berkeley but will be more than ample here in the Philippines. I’ve been with UC Berkeley since 2006 that I’ve been grandfathered into their 1976 pension system. I am not only vested but can claim pension. So that was the idea going back home to the US.
I tell you though, PAL is called Plane Always Late. This so-called national carrier/airline made our travel back to the US miserable. I had to raise hell with some person of authority at NAIA for their error in not informing us via text that the plane bound for SF was cancelled. They even had to pay for our hotel when the flight going to Manila won’t be able catch up with our flight to the US the day earlier. Then the next day, we arrived at the airport to find out that the San Francisco bound plane was cancelled and I wasn’t planning on checking into another hotel for another night. They said the plane that was supposed to come from Los Angeles had technical issues. How are we supposed to know without being texted or called about the delay? I can just imagine how the rest of the passengers stranded in Manila felt when they had to wait for another day to go back to the US. Without me raising hell at that office, I would’ve lost my job. PAL should be called TWA – Third World Airline.
June came. I finished school. I got an A and a B in my respective SFSU classes. It was confirmed that I will be graduating. Somehow I am almost done with a book I was trying to publish. I decided to retire from UC Berkeley and leave the Economics Department. I also decided to move to the Philippines. How that would happen will depend on the next months preparing for it, both on mental, physical and financial aspects. I kept thinking, “Life Is Short.” It is indeed short. The last day of work was June 28.
My first official retirement date is July 1, 2019. I got my first pension check in the mail. So now, I get to wake up late, or sleep late or whenever, work on various writing projects to keep me busy and so forth, while trying to figure out how to get health insurance and monies sent to the Philippines. I also did some research on how to wire funds using the least expensive and fastest way but those two don’t really go hand in hand. The next logical thing to do was to get rid of stuff. Yes, like Auntie, I am also a hoarder. I can’t believe I’ve accumulated all these stuff through the years. Thank god for Facebook Marketplace, eBay and word of mouth. I thought about what to bring to the Philippines, box up stuff to be stored temporarily at my sister’s place in Antelope for future use, or just give them away. In the end, I had three balikbayan boxes full of clothing, books, DVDs, and other ephemera. Oh, and I wanted to go through the self-publishing route. I will have a book of poetry published before I leave the US. The going-away or shall we say good riddance parties started to come. I’ve wanted to tell people on my own terms but somehow things got around. I did try to explain to close friends that this move was supposed to be a quiet affair. A thought crossed my mind, if I am about to go back to retire in the Philippines, I might as well go the long way, the Europe way. Hmmm. A trip back to the Philippines via Europe. Why not? Do it now rather than later, right? I want to go back to Paris and visit the antique shop up north since I never had a chance to go there. It will have to be a full weekend stop. How about Milan, Barcelona, London, or Prague? Double Hmmm. Wait what? Do I even have money?
The book was finalized, edited and scanned for grammar, punctuation spelling, content and flow via a number of friends and editors alike then. I had the printers make a few mock ups to give to these vaunted individuals and get their feedback. I had a tight deadline. It was ready to be sent to printing company downstairs of the building I lived on last July 29th. The title of it was ‘Dear Father, I am Maria.” It was a collection of poems that I’ve written through the years along with a short story that I’ve been saving for another book but I thought it was ripe for publication. It is about voices that haven’t been heard.
Before I go back to retire, I thought of playing another GLTA event. What better place to play than to be in Chicago, where I lived from 1985-1999? The Chicago Tennis open was held on August 9-12 in two indoor courts (gasp). I also thought it would be a great idea for Pon and Curt to have a first dibs on the book. They let me stay at their place. The trip to Chicago was two-fold. Not only was I there to play tennis, sell the books, and see friends, but also to pay my respects to Sam, a former roommate who died of colorectal cancer. I may never come back again so this was a chance for me to say hi and goodbye. We never made it to his crypt. It was closed early on a Sunday. I thought I could have Women’s and Children’s First bookstore in Andersonville sell my book but they only sell local authors. The broad I talked to, the one with the pretentious lisp, practically shooed me off to another bookstore ‘down the street’ as if I was bringing in the plague into her famous establishment. I realized that there’s a system where self-published books do not belong to. Most well-known bookstores prefer a distribution system only for authors who went through the publishing house route to alleviate accounting issues. With that said, I started to understand the work self-published authors have to go to in order to sell their books. Some are lucky to get picked up by these bookstores and the others, like me, pound the pavement to get my book out there. I’ve no marketing dollar to spare. In the end, I thought it was a great experience. I went to Arkipelago and Pegasus Books to sell my books. They were nice to deal with. They also said that most self-published authors end up making more money than the traditional way in the end with less hassle. The fact that I took the time to get to know these booksellers was enough to convince them to sell my book. Maybe when I get to publish my books in the future, I’ll understand the system but for now, I consider myself lucky to be able to go through the self-publishing route.
I decided to go to Barcelona first. I leave San Francisco, the Bay Area, the US on October 19, 2019. September was a busy month. I got invited to do a reading at Pegasus bookstore for Lyrics and Dirges, a monthly reading of authors selected by my mentor, Sharon Coleman, and Mik Chavez. This is where I met the esteemed poet Barbara Jane Reyes and her friend and organizer of the Filipino International Bookfest named Edwin Lozada. Barbara sat in front while I talked. Then I was also invited to read at the Berkeley Book Festival as part of the Milvia Street Journal readers at the Berkeley City College. I called Balikbayan cargo to finalize shipment of the three boxes for the Philippines. The guy to whol it said it will take between 8-12 weeks before I receive them. I also gave my notice to my landlord that I will be vacating my studio after five years. I started shredding stuff, paid all and closed any existing credit cards and ensured that my phone is unlocked to use anywhere in the world. There were advance health directives that needed to be done and notarized. In the initial packet sent to RASC, I wanted my pension direct deposited with a cancelled check. They haven’t done so. I had to find another way to wake these people up somehow. Five calls went unheeded so I went through the hierarchy of people listed as RASC ED, Manager and even brought it to attention of the Admin VP at UC. I also asked them suspend all my health and dental coverage. Also, September 12 was Auntie’s Birthday. She would’ve been 96. I miss her. The trips to Paris, Milan and Barcelona has been booked.
Oh, some of the books got sold. I had to do another printing run of 25 books. To be honest, I longed for feedback but only a few people told me their opinion. Some were constructive but the others were just downright nitpicky. I gave most of it away to friends, acquaintances and others who may not even bother to read them. Oh well, freebies will not happen again in the future and I learned not to trust people who actually don’t read books for their opinion(s).
As September drew to a close and October was just around the corner, my earthly possessions have dwindled a bit yet I still have to downsize. I’ve been sleeping on a memory foam mattress for years but this time, it was on the floor. It was a nightmare to get up from it. Glad my friend Mel was able to do something with it. I spent the rest in a pop up bed sometimes. Fun! Goodwill was a good friend as I took most of the stuff that I have left to them. The guy, who seemed familiar with me and the things I brought in, even said something about those Size DDDD silicone boobs, and that they were perfect for his mom after her double mastectomy. I just gave him a thumbs up. I got to see my sister and gave her the rest of the boxes I wanted kept. I had last minute dinner and lunch runs with friends I haven’t seen for a while. Then the fateful day of October 19 finally came. I woke up crying because I was going to leave for good. A run to Peets coffee soothed last minute jitters and memories. This also happened during the Baccalaureate mass in High School, where I can’t seem to stop crying. The memories were just too much not to remember. Neil showed up at SFO as well as Yoke Tee and Bobbita to see me off.
Barcelona was beautiful. I scarcely spoke Spanish since everyone I talked to or asked about stuff replied back in English. I went to visit the famous Sagrada Familia. It is due to be finished in 2026. Everything about this cathedral has meaning and it relates to god. The audio tour went for 30 minutes. I also took the rail to visit the seaside town of Sitges. I was planning on staying here if the riots and violence were to shut the city off but was lucky enough that it was contained at small parts of the city. The next day I took a bus tour to go up the monastery in Montserrat. I traveled mostly by cab. I went from one library to another, even the antique one. I also took some time to walk through the various calles and just enjoy the neighborhood. I wouldn’t mind living here, really. The vibe was positively cosmopolitan and it fostered creativity. Just think of Gaudi. And the men . . .
Paris was the next stop. It’s my second time to be here. The reason why I want to come back was to bring my book and place it as a permanent fixture at Shakespeare’s Books then visit the antique shops up north in the weekend. Well, I did the tourist thing too as I toured all over the city – Champs Elysees, Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, around Notre Dame (it was closed because of the fire). I went and took a chance at this Air BnB set up not too far from the train line. All I could say was the host was weird. He would talk through walls or half open doors to me. I shrugged at his inability to play host. I wasn’t expecting a bed of roses neither. I know the French can be stark but I didn’t imagine them to be this way. Ok, so I was generalizing. I finally figured out the transit system. Oh, when I told someone where I was going to see these antique stores up north that Saturday, I was warned of pickpockets and dark men lurking at corners to snatch my murse. When I went to see the shops, it was like being in a candy store though I can only peruse through because it was expensive. I haggled the price of an old portable typewriter down when I realized I couldn’t even lug it back to the Philippines. The seller was aghast at me after I told him I can’t buy it that he cursed at me in French. I didn’t understand a thing. I also went to do my Laduree’ pilgrimage as well as eat at this restaurant in the train station. Food, Antiques and Books in Paris. Tres’ magnifique!
I’ve always wanted to go to Milan, Italy. It was one of those magical places I’ve only imagined in TV or in the movies where I dash in and be swept into the arms of tall, swarthy, Italian men with roman noses, soft curly hair and Adonis-like physique, sort of David. David Gandy, that is. Well.. that’s not exactly what had happened. There’s no Adonis person who swept me off my flip-flops. It was just some young person who thought he knew me from school as his professor. He spoke English well I thought he was actually American. He was tall, lanky, cropped hair and had wire glasses on. When he insisted that he deserved a higher grade in his finals, I politely told him that I am not his professor. I wasn’t his Professor Francesco… He apologized profusely with tons of ‘mi scuzis’ couple with bows then walked away. Even the people in the train I was riding at laughed at the whole exchange. So I went to see the Duomo, window-shopped at the Vittorio Emmanuele II. My hotel was walking distance to everywhere though I took the tram to Navigli. I even went to this high end looking Starbucks complete with roastery and two restaurants. All I can say is the people here dress impeccably. I woke up early in the morning, when the sun was rising from the east, patches of water dotted the pavement, I watched this tall brunette in a ponytail, knee high black stiletto black boots, dark brown coat as she took off her black gloves, unlocked what seem to be chains that coiled around her scarlet Yamaha motorcycle, then opened the rear cargo box to reveal an onyx helmet, she took it out and placed the chains inside and locket it shut. She put on her helmet and mounted the motorcycle and turned the engine one. She adjusted the mirrors, revved up the engine, sat straight then left. This took at least three minutes. I can just imagine where she worked or what fashion house she’d be sashaying in. Everywhere you looked, people have a certain confidence in them that maybe, I’d pack my bags and live here. I am, in a way, not bound by the geography I was used to but perhaps I am now called a Nomad. Well, not yet. Who knows! The potential is there. I can write anywhere I want, right? Yup. I ma do it in MY lifetime.
Somehow Istanbul was a must-go-to destination and basically the last city before I finally settle in the Philippines. It had to be done now or never so even with a limited budget, I was able to squeeze it in as the last of my itinerary. Learning Turkish wasn’t easy and I have to remember that Turkey is a Muslim country. I had to make sure that I secured a visa to get in. The last thing you want to be is to get stranded in a city without the proper entry documents. With that in mind, there were no expectations but to enjoy the sights. The hotel I chose was walking distance to the tourist spot. My first impression was that there’s smoke anywhere. I didn’t do my research on this one. Having had asthma already just exacerbated my already frail disposition from travelling that I might actually get sick while in Istanbul with all the second smoke coming my way. That didn’t deter me from going to Haggia Sophia, The Blue Mosque and parts of Topkapi Palace. Then there’s this man, as I was going home to my hotel, who asked me if I was Malaysian, Indonesian, Singaporean… I told him he was getting close. Then he asked me if I was South Asian, Thai, or Vietnamese. I looked at him curiously. What does this guy want? I told him I was Filipino. So he just wanted to talk to someone before going home because he had a bad day. He’s been looking for a job and was frustrated that he couldn’t find any in a huge city like Istanbul. I told him I was just going around and he figured that I was a tourist. He asked if I can have dinner with him, meet him at the spot by Seven. Well, like I’ve nothing else going on later so I met up with him at the same spot we met. He is tall with a husky built. His name is Ali. For the next four days in Istanbul, he was my constant companion. He introduced me to his friends and showed me Taksim Square and the best hammam ever, somehow my cold evaporated in thin air. I like Ali. He is sweet, quiet and lives a simple life. We will leave Ali here for now. I left Istanbul last Monday night of November 4, 2019, with mixed emotions but I know this, I will definitely come back and soon. We had a stopover in Dubai and change planes from Turkish Air to Emirates. I swear, why can’t Third World Airline aka PAL be like Emirates? Emirates offered the best food even on economy class, the seats were comfortable, and it is on time and no delays. They even confirmed that if there were any delays, everyone would’ve been sent a notice via email or SMS text at least 36-24 hours prior or will make special and reasonable accommodations if there’s a cancellation or something.
While on vacation, I noticed a spate of earth-shaking events in Davao. It’s becoming a weekly occurrence and higher in magnitude. Is Mt. Apo about to blow up? I understood that we are in an area of high activity. Something’s percolating miles below in the lush, verdant island of Mindanao. I hope to god that everyone is safe and sound.
On November 8, I finally stepped out of Ceb Pac and greet Davao with open arms. I met up with Paul and when I went into my condo, the cracks on the walls confirmed my worst fears. The earthquakes were that strong. I scheduled a meeting with the Engineers and builders to assess the damage. I found out that the paying to redo the walls was my responsibility. Earthquake Insurance claims went up the stratosphere and I can only claim what’s inside my unit. I cannot claim my whole investment. Friends tell to get used to it and just be ready. I brought the Earthquake kit that was given to my aunt here. Having been in the bay area, I’ve had my share of earthquakes so being in Davao is no better. So now, onto establishing my footing here by changing my address, get Health Insurance, obtain Driver’s License and opening an account at the nearby bank at the mall. Then an earthquake hit. I just walked down the fire escape like everyone else with my things and waited outside the designated area across the building. There were no aftershocks so we went in. My knees shook with fear. I’ve never had to fly down the fire escape like that after an actual earthquake. Now I have earthquake vertigo. The spells happen every now and then and that I feel like everything is shaking but I try not to panic.
There’s one thing I’ve learned from being here in Davao or even in the Philippines for the last two months; Be patient, don’t make a scene as if you are the only person in this world and do not ever scream at people because it takes forever to get things done. No one will help you. You will be ignored. One thing I couldn’t stand is that you text people but they don’t even reply back at all. You have to call them to get their attention. I know it is way too much to ask here. I was spoiled with the American way of life. Oh, don’t even ask me about the traffic situation here in the Philippines and Wi-Fi connectivity issues are almost daily. I’ve also started to seek out interests like joining a tennis club and meet up with elementary and high school batchmates. I also went back to Manila twice to meet up San Francisco and Chicago friends.
Have I written anything from all these? Of course. I am finishing the first draft of a novel. It should be finished by May or June 2020. I am not sure if I am able to submit my Grad school application via online. I will mull on it later. I spent Christmas eve with my former neighbors, the Nartatezes, at GSIS Matina and New Years with the Alinsub Family in Camp Holiday in Samal Island. It was my first Christmas and New Years together since 2004 here in Davao or in the Philippines. I visited Auntie’s grave as well as Auntie Celin’s, Lolo and Lola as well as Daddy and Mama’s graves two months in a row. I also made sure to have their names mentioned in mass here at Redemptorist Church for just a small donation. I am adding Ron and Sam into the pamisas as well. It’s good to remember your loved ones, right?
I am looking forward to a fruitful 2020. It means a chock full of books written and love memories with Ali etched in black and white, as well as be healthy and living life to the fullest.